According to an analysis conducted by The Washington Post, students from majority Black and Latino communities are required to submit additional proof of income for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at higher rates than other students.
FAFSA audits nearly 25% of the estimated 18 million applicants during the 2019-2020 cycle. Compare that to the less than half a percent of all taxpayers audited by the Internal Revenue Service last year.
Though the government is working to reduce the obstacle for students to have to provide additional information on their applications for aid, the process delays funds, and has left some students questioning their place in college altogether.
“It’s very stressful,” Brayneisha Edwards, a college sophomore, told the outlet, “My grades are suffering. I have all of these doubts about am I even going to finish college. My parents didn’t go to college and they are trying to help, but this is new to all of us.”
Edwards was one of the students required to fill out additional forms verifying her family’s income. She says she submitted the form to the financial aid office on campus, only for the office to say it was missing from her file weeks later. The delay caused her to miss out on scholarship opportunities and left her with a large bill at the end of the semester that prevented her from registering for spring classes.
The US Department of Education estimates that about 11% of students drop out of the verification process each year, but some experts in financial aid say that number is as high as 25 percent.
The Post’s analysis found that students who qualify for Pell grants, intended for students from low income households, are audited six times the rate of those who don’t qualify for the money. Because of the wealth gap between racial and ethnic groups, those audited tend to be Black and Latino students.
The federal financial aid system has $120 billion in funding each year. The Department says the verification process is used to ensure the funds only go to those who qualify. Experts, however, say the verification process is a barrier from getting students from low income households into college, especially amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a really difficult time for many students to even consider college when they have loss of family income, death in the family,” Kim Cook, executive director of the nonprofit National College Attainment Network, said to the Post. “If we get students to continue down the path to keep their options open for college, hurdles and barriers like verification can so easily knock them off that path.”
Data examined by the National College Attainment Network found that the verification process doesn’t really help prevent misuse of funds. In the two most recent years where funds were awarded, over 70% of students who were audited saw no change in their aid. Only three percent of all applicants became ineligible for Pell grants after going through the verification process. In fact, the nonprofit found that when there were less students audited, more improper payments were prevented.
To address these issues the Department of Education says it’s reducing the number of students audited to no more than 18% this year. That’s a reduction of 450,000 people. Congress also passed legislation so that applicants no longer have to input their income data themselves, building off a 2019 measure for the Department and IRS to share tax return data.
Financial aid experts believe this will help, but the process still presents barriers and disproportionate burden for students who come from low income households who often have to find additional aid on top of federal money to pay for school.
“We ask students – often those most vulnerable and marginalized by the inequities in our systems – to prove over and over again they need the money for college,” Teresa Steinkamp, advising director at Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, a nonprofit, said. “And once they navigate these complicated barriers, the aid is often insufficient to cover the need they’ve verified they have.”
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